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It is a sweltering summer in Newark, New Jersey, 1944, and Bucky Cantor is a young man working as a playground supervisor. Bucky is a kind, brave and upstanding young man who suffers a great deal of guilt throughout this novel. First, his guilt is based around the fact that his absent father was a thief and a petty criminal. Brought up by his loving grandparents, Bucky wants to make the memory of his adored grandfather proud and live up to the aspirations and success of his girlfriend and her family. Bucky also has a sense of shame about not being able to fight in the war as his friends are, he is a young man with excellent health, but poor eyesight. Still, the children at the playground adore and look up to him, and Bucky does his best to keep them safe and entertained during the hot, long, summer days.

Tragedy strikes in the form of a polio epidemic, for this is before the days of a vaccine or successful treatment, when polio could mean death, permanent disability, or the horror of an iron lung. What is more, the disease was indiscriminate, hitting emotively mostly at young children. Roth evokes that time and those emotions evocatively, in a small community where nobody knows who (or what) causes the deadly disease and how to avoid it spreading unchecked. Are the playgrounds safe and is Bucky in some way to blame? This novel is narrated by one of the young boys who spent that summer observing events, as the story takes us through a tragic time and it's outcome. Although this is a fairly short novel, there is not a word wasted and it is hard not to be affected by this story of a past time when suspicion and fear raged and a disease caused destruction amongst the children of a community.
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on 7 February 2013
I have read a few other books by Roth and I find his writing brilliant, mesmerizing and evocative. And this one, although a little bit duller at times than for instance American Pastoral, does have the same virtuoso merits. Having said that, I have a few times laid down both these books in horror and exasperation, because the miraculously fine storytelling had inveigled me to continue along a deeply disturbing, almost excessively realistic and ultimately extremely depressing journey. Roth does take one deeply into the stifling and implacable atmosphere of this impossibly warm summer and then, bit by it, into the disturbing day by day of the polio epidemic. As in other books which take up this subject, such as The Plague, by Albert Camus, the horror and the dread of it pervades the whole story.

The fancy that struck me, possibly far-fetched, having by chance recently re-read David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, is a far flung parallel between D.C.'s Mr Dick and Nemesis' Horace.

The fact is that they are both middle aged men who in one way or another are not completely right in the head, and have stayed halfway between childhood and manhood, and who seem to gravitate towards being around children, and watching them play sports. There is also a scene in D.C where Mr Dick insists on shaking a person 's hand. Thinking of this imagined link made me examine and relive the sheer blank horror of Phillip Roth's character, this unwitting and despised, yet in his mind utterly harmless, carrier of the disease.

Where Mr Dick has been dealt bad cards by life in being less smart in some ways than others and in having an unsupportive family, he is utterly redeemed by his own harmlessness and good intentions, and by the immense goodness and common sense of the characters surrounding him.

In Nemesis, on the other hand, of course we know that it could have been anything which effected the actual contagion, as it is the inevitability of chance and circumstance which dominates this story, but still this character is a sort of symbol for an almost comic cruelty of fate. In this case all the straight goodness of the main character and all his human weakness do not manage redeem or save him, or Horace. Fate and chance take their random destructive course regardless of puny human's determination or sense of fairness.

This is the message that ultimately stays with you, also because the ending wraps up rather hurriedly and the main part of the story remains more present in your mind. Beautiful story about the ugliness of life.
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on 16 September 2016
I usually enjoy Roth's novels but found this one wearisome. The theme is interesting but the protagonist, though a very worthy individual, is terminally dull. For me the book just never got off the ground.
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on 10 February 2012
First Philip Roth I have read in decades, From the first lines you were drawn into the suffocating heat of the city and the suffering caused by the polio epidemic, causing unbearable tensions and guilt. There are a lot of what ifs throughout the story which asks the reader if Mr Cantor had stayed in his job would he have felt differently. There are many issues thrown up by this tragedy, to which there are probably no definite answers. Thoroughly recommend this book for book club
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on 28 June 2013
Vintage Roth, this is an absolutely marvellous book that follows one healthy, happy and fulfilled young man into his own misery and grief, displaying his sense of unjustified but understandable self-blame. While in his youth, he has enriched the lives of many youngsters, in his adulthood he has lost that sense of commitment and attachment because of interventions he could never have predicted or avoided. Spectacularly good.
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on 30 June 2015
Brilliant. It's Philip Roth - what else is there to say? But if you've never read him before this is a good one. An easy, fascinating, heart wrenching book - superbly written.
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on 20 October 2017
My first Philip Roth is I believe to be his last. I will not say much until I've read more but this was a powerful experience, a familiar story in some ways but still it pierces.
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on 10 April 2016
I enjoyed this book a lot. I found it interesting to think about how crippling life can be for some, especially when dealt heavy blows and how dramatically a person (or personality) can change though the internal processing of life's many challenges, not only spiritually but emotionally and physically.
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on 7 December 2010
Simple writing, yet builds an excellent picture of the main character. The polio epidemic in 1944 in New Jersey is so well described it brings alive all the dreads and fears which surrounded the disease before the Salk vaccine was developed. I was completely absorbed in the story, although one could foresee that the disease would be taken from New Jersey to the clean woodland campsite. The small section at the end of the book with conversations about the lives of those who had been affected by polio was moving and interesting.
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on 19 July 2017
Very well written definitely worth a read despite the depressing topic of polio
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